Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mountain hazards

There's a much viewed video floating around the net that you may have seen -- a man being blown about by 175 kilometer per hour (109 mph) winds at the summit of New Hampshire's 6,288 foot high Mt. Washington on May 16. If you've missed it, here it is.
Outside magazine seized on the occasion of its popularity to publish a hardy perennial story about the number of people this little mountain kills regularly.

Why does such a small mountain kill so many people? One reason is obviously the extreme weather. “Mount Washington sits at the intersection of several major stormtracks,” explains Weather Observer Tom Padham. He's stationed at the mountain’s summit, and gave us a tour of his weather station. The jet stream carries nearly every storm moving west-to-east, and southwest-to-northeast across the country, right over Mount Washington. There, they intersect with weather systems moving south-to-north, up the Atlantic coast. ...

... During the summer, when risk of avalanches and icefalls abates, danger to hikers persist. The trails themselves—including the popular Tuckerman Ravine Trail—are strewn with loose, basketball-size rocks. Practically the entire trail is one big tripping hazard, just waiting to twist an ankle, and, if that happens, you won’t be able to walk off the trail under your own power. ...

Close enough to the northeast urban conurbation that a summit can be had in a day trip from Boston, or an overnight from New York, the mountain offers some of the best, and most easily-accessible hiking and skiing in the region. 250,000 people are said to visit each year. Doing that is as easy as pulling into the parking lot, and hitting the trailhead. There’s warning signs, there’s stories, and there’s even guides you can hire, but most people are content just to head out for a walk, and see what happens; ignorant of the weather, the terrain, and the dangers. It’s tempting to say that the government should step in, and require permits, or better patrol the trails, but it’s also easy to conclude that if someone is going to set out on a mountain notorious for its death-rate and extreme weather in flip flops, that they’d find a way to die elsewhere if this hike wasn’t available. 

My mother enjoyed telling the story of how she was almost the victim of this attitude. As a young girl, she spent several happy summers at a girls camp in Vermont where she learned the pleasures and rigors of camping and hiking in New England. But her parents decided that her summers ought to be more purposeful: one year she was packed off to a coastal camp where the girls were supposed to practice their French speaking skills. The counselors were inexperienced young women from Europe having a summer adventure in the wilds of America. "They had no idea how to run a camp!" recalled Mother.

These counselors took it into their heads to lead their charges to climb Mt. Washington. As Mother recalled the adventure: "They had no maps. The fog came in, we couldn't find the trail. Soon we were just wandering around, wet and miserable in the dark." Mother and her mates made the group sit down, cover up as best they could with the few garments they'd brought along, and not wander through a long, cold night. Finally in the morning the party was able to stumble down the mountain, cold but not harmed.

The incident was enough to keep her parents from sending her back to this "improving" camp. She never forgot to respect mountains afterward. Her French speaking never amounted to much either.

Here's a photo of the young women of mother's group at Camp Beau Rivage in the summer of 1920. She's in the center of the back row.

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